Remixing Duke Ellington

There’s no music I love more in the world than Duke Ellington’s.

When I was a kid, the New York Transit Museum had a commercial in heavy rotation on local TV that used “Take The A Train” and I remember being riveted by it. I should point out that Billy Strayhorn wrote this tune, not Ellington, but it became the Ellington Orchestra’s theme song for decades.

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Blues for the Jews

December is always a complex month for half-Jewish mutts like me. When pressured to self-identify, I usually just go with “Jewish” for the sake of simplicity, but this is in spite of not having being bar mitzvahed, not knowing any Hebrew, having only the vaguest idea what all the holidays and rituals mean, and having no relationship whatsoever with God.

My mom is Jewish, so that’s enough for the tribe to have welcomed me as one of their own, but it’s a complex question as to what that membership means. Wikipedia has two separate articles for Judaism and Jews, to distinguish the religion from the ethnicity, and I definitely belong to the ethnicity more than the religion.

My most significant personal connection to the tribe, aside from family Passover seders and Seinfeld appreciation, has come through music, specifically klezmer music. I may not know my way around the Torah, but I know my harmonic minor modes inside and out.

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Authenticity

When I was younger I was obsessed with authenticity in music. I wouldn’t even play electric guitar because it felt too easy, like cheating somehow. I expended a lot of energy and attention trying to figure out what is and isn’t authentic. Now, at the age of 34, I’ve officially given up. I doubt there’s even such a thing as authenticity in music, at least not in America. There’s just stuff that I enjoy hearing, and stuff I don’t. But the concept of authenticity meant a lot to me for a long time, and it continues to mean a lot to many of the musicians and music fans I know. So what is it, and why do people care about it?

At various points in my quest, I thought I had identified some truly authentic musical forms and styles. Here they are, more or less in order of my embracing them.

Sixties Motown

When I was growing up, my mom and stepfather had the Big Chill soundtrack in heavy rotation. You could equate authenticity with soul, and there’s plenty of soul here.

In the eighties, my parents’ friends liked to praise the classic Marvin Gaye and Aretha Franklin recordings on this soundtrack as “pure,” by contrast to the music of the then-present: hip-hop, synth-heavy pop, Michael Jackson. I dutifully accepted this formulation, even though my ears told me to like the eighties stuff as much as the sixties stuff. Continue reading

Kramer

Kramer is the name my mom’s father’s parents gave at Ellis Island because they thought it they might have an easier time with it assimilation-wise than Garfinkel. In Eastern Europe, if you want a WASP-y sounding name, you usually choose something German rather than British. My mom’s wing of her extended family calls itself the Kramer clan.

For most of you reading, the name Kramer will have a different association.

I have a similar build to Michael Richards and some of his birdlike awkwardness. I’ve been here:

In my early twenties I felt like I wanted to start dressing cool but wasn’t sure how to get started. Kramer is a goofy dude but he always looks sharp. He has some of the same fashion sensibilities as my grandfathers. Papa Kramer was tall like me, not a flamboyant dresser but he liked bright colors and patterns. Grandpa Hein had even more adventurous ideas about colors and patterns. Once I started intentionally modeling my wardrobe on Kramer, my personal look completely came together.

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Breakdance

I can’t breakdance. I want to learn. It looks like fun. When I worked for the Parks Department I was involved in their afterschool programs. One of them met in the Alfred E Smith Recreation Center in the housing project of the same name. In the basketball gym, Roc-a-fella (the b-girl, not the record label) and her crew taught classes. Some of the people were beginners, and some were advanced Jedi masters. One guy could spin on his head while nonchalantly taking off his jacket. I watched some of those classes and felt as happy as I’ve ever felt watching other people do anything.

Here I’m going to collect some breakdance media and see if any thoughts emerge. Your suggestions welcome.

Beat Street

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